No Powell at RNC: Tradition or politics?

By Stephen W. Stromberg
Published August 10, 2004 3:28PM (EDT)

The Washington Post reported on Saturday that Secretary of State Colin Powell won't be speaking at -- or perhaps even attending -- this year's Republican National Convention in New York. The article cited a "tradition" that Cabinet officials refrain from speaking at national conventions:

"But in keeping with tradition, Cabinet officials do not speak at the conventions -- or other campaign events. So Powell will not appear.

"'As secretary of state, I am obliged not to participate in any way, shape, fashion, or form in parochial, political debates. I have to take no sides in the matter,' Powell told the Unity: Journalists of Color Convention on Thursday. Powell was a featured speaker at the 2000 convention and even campaigned with Bush."

Funny, because sitting Secretary of Education Rod Paige will address the Republican National Convention on August 31, the second night of the 2004 convention. And if you hark back to the days when the Republicans had sitting Cabinet members to speak at their national nominating conventions, the "tradition" seems even less, well, traditional. Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole addressed the 1988 Republican National Convention, and in 1984, Dole, Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler and Chief U.S. Delegate to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had Cabinet rank, all took the lectern.

True, sitting secretaries of state aren't often on the convention docket, but if Jeane Kirkpatrick could do it, you have to wonder why Colin Powell -- a fabulously popular figure in his own right -- is sitting this one out, especially in light of his rather prominent role in the president's 2000 campaign.

Powell's comments put the Republicans in something of a Catch 22. If the morally redoubtable Powell is simply standing up for a fine tradition, then what does that say about the principles of Secretary Paige or the litany of prominent Republicans who have chosen to ignore it? If there is no hard-and-fast tradition, then why is Paige getting a prime-time slot instead of Powell?

The answer to the second question might lie in the politics of the Iraq war. As another African American on Bush's Cabinet, Paige helps create an image of diversity and inclusion for the Republicans. And while Paige invited controversy when he called the nation's largest teacher's union a "terrorist organization," he doesn't have the disadvantage of an ambiguous stance on the war in Iraq a la Colin Powell. (The secretary of state is now insisting that he fully supports the president's Iraq policy and that he was never an invasion skeptic.) It looks suspiciously like Powell has just not turned out to be the darling the Bush camp hoped he would become.

But with only three hours of network coverage, most Americans might not even miss him.

Stephen W. Stromberg

Stephen W. Stromberg is a former editorial fellow at Salon.

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